Friday, October 5, 2012

Showing the Way

Tati Salmon in later life

The world is divided between those who believe in an afterlife and those who don’t. And even those who are believers are divided about whether the dead reach out to us from beyond the grave. I used to be a skeptic on that point but I am no longer. The older I get, the more I recognize those signs when I see them. Here’s an example…

When my husband Mike and I were in Tahiti in December 2007, I was very eager to find the site of the Salmons’ famous house in their ancestral village of Papara. The house itself had been swept away in a flood in 1926, complete with its priceless contents – artifacts dating back to ancient Tahiti as well as many family letters and other important papers. The thought of those lost letters is enough to make a biographer turn pale.

I had gathered some clues about the house’s location from the many accounts written by visitors to the house in the 19th and early 20th century. The fullest descriptions were left by the American painter John La Farge and the American historian Henry Adams on their world tour in 1891. During their four-month stay in Tahiti, they came to know and love 38-year-old Tati Salmon, the genial oldest son of the family, a man whom Henry Adams described as being big and handsome with “an overflow of life.” Ever hospitable, Tati twice hosted the two Americans at the Papara house, with its wooden frame covered with lime and with a roof of thatched pandanus leaves and shady verandahs on the front and back.
Here’s how the visitors described the house’s location: “The house stands flat on the seashore… a sea that came close up to the grass, and had three lines of surf rolling in through an opening in the reef, and rolling close up till they sent small waves into the entrance of the little river that flows close by the house” (Adams). “The little river runs rapidly a few yards off, hidden in part by trees; at which women go down to wash, and which men and boys cross to bathe, and in which splash the horses when they are washed in the morning. It is all delightfully rustic” (La Farge).  

La Farge also wrote this lovely description of the local children swimming in the river. “I looked this morning at the children playing in the water of the little river, or in the surf that rolls into it or along the shore… It was a pretty sight, the brown limbs and bodies all red in the sun and wet, coming out of the blue and white water like red flowers.”
But neither man divulged the name of the river. Tahiti has many rivers (there are at least four in Papara alone), and each one can have several different names. So it was going to be tall order for us to find the exact site of the Salmon house.

Mike and I arrived in Papara and quickly found the church and the chapel where manyof the Salmons are buried. At the town hall, we were lucky enough to meet a great-great granddaughter of Tati Salmon, but because my French was bad and her English non-existent, I could not find out if she knew where her ancestors’ house in Papara used to stand. So we said our au revoirs and headed back to the rental car. I decided we’d better continue on our way round the island as we still had a lot more ground to cover that day. So Mike pointed the car southwards and I sat beside him, nursing my disappointment.
But as we left the outskirts of the town and passed over a small bridge over the Taharuu River, I happened to glance to my right and to my astonishment saw the very scene La Farge had described 116 years earlier. Sun-splashed children were frolicking in the river’s mouth where it opened out into the lagoon.  


“Stop the car,” I yelled. Startled, Mike pulled over. I leapt out of the car and ran back along the bridge, and headed down a dirt track in the direction of the sea. For a second my attention was diverted by a pair of puppies shambling through the mud. But as I paused to watch them, wondering if I was trespassing on private property, I felt a pressure at my back pushing me forward. I swear it felt like exactly a pair of hands in the small of my back pressing me on, keeping me on track. I could almost lean back against the force of it. Propelled by the invisible hands, I kept going all the way down the dirt track to the very edge of a wide black sand beach where a deserted sandwich bar looked out over the bay.
It wasn’t a very prepossessing building, but this was the view it commanded (see photo below). It was the very view described by Henry Adams as he sat on the Salmons’ verandah and looked up at “velvet-green mountains, streaked by long white threads of waterfalls.”  

Almost five years later, I still have no absolute definitive proof that the Salmon house was located on the banks of the Taharuu River, though I have accumulated a few more bits of evidence that suggest as much. But for myself, I have no doubts at all that on that day in December 2007 Tati Salmon gently but firmly steered me to the spot he loved better than anywhere else in the world.

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